David Axelrod: “Obama Identifies with the Jewish Community”

January 6, 2016

The president was staring off into space, remembers David Axelrod, as he sat in a small dining room off of the Oval Office. Talks with his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, over the Middle East peace process were not only going nowhere, but also starting to expose the administration to criticism from some inside the Jewish community.

“He was very contemplative,” recalls the former White House senior advisor. “I said, ‘What’s on your mind?’ And this was in the midst of some of these back and forths with Bibi, and he said, ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I think I’m the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat in this office. The people who I’m closest to, the people who are mentors of mine … the values with which I was raised, I feel very close to the community and it hurts to be depicted somehow as hostile to the community. It bothers me.’”

Five years after Axelrod left the administration, relations between Netanyahu and Barack Obama have hardly improved. Last year’s negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal — which Netanyahu famously sought to derail in an address before Congress — only strained the relationship further. The speech failed to stop the deal, but in Axelrod’s view, “It was a really audacious thing to do.”

In the following interview with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore, Axelrod discusses the president’s relationship with Netanyahu, the administration’s early tilt away from Israel, and how Chicago’s Jewish community came to shape the president’s own politics. This is an edited transcript of a conversation held on July 24, 2015.

The Netanyahu speech before Congress, sort of an amazing situation. What was your thinking when you saw that happen?

I was outraged actually when I saw the speech in Congress, because it was such a fundamentally partisan event. It was meant to undermine the talks, and the talks to me were the most important path to resolving a very dangerous situation. I also viewed it as much as anything as a campaign event for Bibi, who was in some degree of trouble in his re-election race in Israel and was using the United States Congress as a venue for a campaign event at the expense of the Iran negotiations. I was really aggravated by it. I’m sure many others were as well.

What had gotten us to that point?

I think it’s important to recognize that Barack Obama is not the first president who has had difficulties with Bibi Netanyahu. He had famously bad relations with Bill Clinton during the Clinton administration. It was one of the issues that caused him to lose the prime ministership in the ’90s. He has a history of prickly relations with American presidents, so it’s important to note that.

I do think that Bibi has a fundamentally partisan identification here. I think he tends to identify with the Republicans or conservatives. Ron Dermer, his ambassador here, is a former Republican operative. …

But the president came to office, President Obama, with a deeply held belief that time was fleeting for a two-state solution and that a two-state solution was absolutely essential not just for peace in the region but to preserve Israel as a Jewish Democratic state. He had a sense of urgency about that. This obviously was politically fraught for Netanyahu and difficult. Even though he professed support for a two-state solution, it was not necessarily a position that helped him with his own coalition. So there was the potential for some conflict right from the beginning.

We will delve more into that in a second, but one last thing about the speech. I know you weren’t at the White House at that point, but what do you think was going on at the White House at that point?

It was extraordinary for a foreign leader to come into the United States Congress and use it as a platform to try and undermine administration policy in the way that Netanyahu did. I can only guess that there was consternation about it. It was a really audacious thing to do. It was suffused in the politics of Israel and that election, but it had the effect of undermining or attempting to undermine the very delicate negotiations that were going on around Iran and the nuclear talks. I have to believe that it wasn’t well received.

Let’s go back in time here. … How did Obama’s background shape him as someone who seemed to take upon himself the belief that he could bring diverging groups together?

First of all, he is someone who has had to navigate different worlds his whole life. His father was African. His mother was from Kansas. He spent some of his youth in Indonesia. He was a black student at a private school in Hawaii where the African American population was small. So I think he learned at an early age how to navigate different worlds.

He also often talks about his mom and her admonition to him to put himself in the other person’s shoes, to constantly think about what people across from him are about, what they’re thinking, what their concerns are. I think that’s something he took to heart. … All of this led to a personality that has not just allowed him, but probably encouraged him, to try and find common ground among different groups of people. …

When you look at Obama’s career, starting from his days as a community organizer when he tried to bring different people together, bring the community together with policymakers to try and affect change; when he went to Harvard and was president of the Harvard Law Review, reconciling liberals and conservatives and trying to find consensus; as a legislator in Illinois, he famously was the one who could reach across the aisle and forge coalitions around very difficult issues, and he found partners to do that when he was a U.S. senator as well. So the history of Obama is a belief in his own ability to bring people of disparate views and cultures and backgrounds together to solve difficult problems.

How does that prepare him for issues such as peace negotiations in Israel or issues such as the Iran issue?

I think he brings the same instincts to his dealings with international leaders. Obviously you’re dealing with in some cases ancient and ingrained rivalries, but he has a belief in the ability to find common ground and understanding that sometimes it’s just not possible and sometimes conflict is unavoidable. But his view is you should try and find a path to solve problems through negotiation before you take the other measures if you can. He campaigned on this.

One of the most famous confrontations in the 2008 campaign was a debate in which he said that he would be willing to talk to our enemies, that he would be willing to talk to leaders of countries who were adversaries of the U.S., and this created a huge firestorm within the Democratic primary and across the aisle. But he’s been very consistent in that view, and he has followed through on it. …

When he gets back to Chicago, some of his important [mentors] are [the attorneys] Newt Minow and Abner Mikva. In Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview [he describes] how he was tutored both in Chicago politics but also in liberal Zionism, values that he took to heart and that he defined with Jeffrey as being key to his understanding of his role in politics. Talk about that a little bit. Who does he tie into, and why is it important, and what lessons does he take from it?

I remember a time when I worked in the White House, and I went to find the president, and he was sitting in this small dining room off of the Oval Office. He was just staring into space. He was very contemplative. I said, “What’s on your mind?” And this was in the midst of some of these back-and-forths with Bibi, and he said, “You know,” he said, “I think I’m the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat in this office. The people who I’m closest to, the people who are mentors of mine, the Ab Mikvas, the Newt Minows, the values with which I was raised, I feel very close to the community, and it hurts to be depicted somehow as hostile to the community. It bothers me.”

And when you think about his history, it’s quite right. Hyde Park, where he really came of age politically, it’s a very integrated community, but a large Jewish population and a very progressive one. And a lot of the Ab Mikvas, Newt Minows and so on, these were people who were progressives in the ’60s, and when the civil rights movement was taking place [they] were outspoken advocates for civil rights. Those were many of the battles that were being fought in Chicago. Obama identifies with the Jewish community as the community that stood with the African American community in those very difficult fights back in the ’60s, in addition to his general appreciation for the kind of progressive tradition in Judaism, valuing education, valuing tikkun olam — repairing the world — and so on. …

One of the things Jeffrey said to us was, in a weird way, that [Obama] was surrounded by progressive Jews all his life. But then he comes across Bibi Netanyahu, and Jeffrey says in some ways, Bibi is the first ultra-conservative Jew that he had ever met, and he didn’t quite understand how to deal with him.

… I think the thing that aggravated the president about Bibi was, Obama felt that this goal of a two-state solution was fleeting, and that there was an urgency, and that there was a chance to get this done; that there was a possibility that we could get this done. … There seemed to be a path potentially. The Palestinians were not particularly reliable either, which turned out to be a frustration, but there was a path.

I think it became obvious after some time that Bibi was not willing to take that path, not out of ideology, although that may have been part of it, but primarily out of politics. I think that the thing that frustrates Obama more than anything else is when people pass on an opportunity to do something big and meaningful and historic because they’re worried about the transient political ramifications of doing it.

This is true in domestic politics as well. I think everybody’s strength is their weakness. Barack Obama’s strength is that he thinks long; he thinks big. He sees public service as an opportunity to get meaningful things done that will make the world a better place, make the country stronger, help people, and he is willing to take risks to do it. And he doesn’t tolerate people who put their political fortunes first. I think it seemed to him as if Bibi was very much rooted in his coalition and that he wasn’t going to affront them or take a political risk in order to do something that could have a deep and important meaning for the future.

… That first meeting at the White House where there seemed to be the first head against head, Obama is pushing freezing the settlements, and Netanyahu is here to say: “Hey, we’ve got this big problem with Iran. Have I talked about that yet?” And there is this fight from the very beginning.

I think that the president would probably say his view is that Bibi was being shortsighted. He might say the president was being naïve, but the president’s view is where is this all going, what is the future going to bring here, and ultimately, is that really the path to security? So they had a difference of opinion about the real facts of where this is all going.

The president seemed to believe that the occupation really was the thing that would lead to the death of liberal Zionism’s liberal democratic project.

I think that he, like many people, believed that if Israel in perpetuity is essentially functioning as an occupying force, and given the demographic changes in Israel and in the region, it’s hard to be both a Jewish state and a democracy and make this all cohere. That is a concern. And I think it’s a concern of a lot of people in Israel as well.

Was some of that also from what he learned in Chicago?

I’m sure that all of that filters into his thinking, but this notion that he came to the office with this airy-fairy kind of romanticized view of liberal Zionism I think is way overblown. He came to office as a pretty sophisticated student of the region, of foreign policy. This was more of a pragmatic judgment about the nature of the demography of the region and the logic of where all of this was going to lead. …

I was with him in Israel in 2008. He went to Sderot, a town right on the border, pockmarked by where missiles hit, talked to families who had suffered as a result of those attacks. He understands very clearly the existential threat that Israel lives with every single day. And anyone who thinks that that is not foremost in his mind as he makes all of these calculations, as it were, about where he wanted to go is wrong. He is very passionate about it, which is why he has invested so much in the military-to-military relationship and the Iron Dome system and a lot of the other upgrades that have gone on during the Obama administration to help secure Israel. So he wasn’t naïve about the threat.

I don’t think Bibi’s feelings about land were all rooted in pragmatic judgments about security. I think they were rooted in politics; they were rooted in philosophy. I remember in 1994 I went with a group to Israel, and we met with Bibi, who was the leader of the opposition, … and Bibi was asked, “What will you tell the settlers who will have to move if these Oslo Accords move forward?” And he said, “I won’t have to tell them anything, because if I’m prime minister, they won’t have to move.” [Yitzhak] Rabin in contrast said, “I will tell them that peace has a price and that too much blood has been spilled, and this is one of the sacrifices that we have to make.”

You could see why he was the leader, why he was the visionary, why he was the guy who was moving the process forward.

… Cairo. Give a little feeling of the philosophy of what was being done. Of course what comes out of this also is that there is no trip to Israel immediately afterward, and that is felt to be a slap in the face by certainly some of the politicians and to some extent the Israeli people. It hurt the president.

I regret that. I think if we were to do that all over again, I think we should have added a stop there. The great challenge that we had after the eight years of the Bush administration was, despite President Bush’s oft-stated assertion that our differences were with extremists and not the Muslim world, there was this sense in the Muslim world that we, by dint of the actions that we had taken over the last eight years, that we were an intruding force in that region, and it lent itself to extremism; it lent itself to those who wanted to show anger at the West, at the U.S. and so on.

One of the president’s views is that we needed to separate the extremists from the rest of the Muslim world; that we needed to isolate the extremists and send a signal to the rest of the Muslim world that we are not in conflict with the entire quarter of this planet that is Muslim. So the speech to Cairo was kind of an effort to reset that relationship. And look, he was very frank about our commitment to Israel in that speech. I was in the room. It was very quiet when he spoke bluntly about Israel and its security and its legitimate concerns and grievances. But the principal mission of that trip was to try and reset our relationship with the Muslim world.

Was there a belief that it was necessary to put some space between the U.S. and Israel?

I don’t think there was an effort to put space between the U.S. and Israel, but I think, in the decision to go to Cairo but not to Jerusalem, there was a sense that this would make the Cairo speech look less like a checking of the box, more [that] it would elevate the importance of the Cairo speech as an outreach. It wasn’t meant to be a rebuke of Israel, and the language in the speech was very strongly pro-Israel, though he did speak to the settlement issue. It was really more a matter of just shining a bright light on the effort to restart relations with the Muslim world.

There are some people that will say that Obama had a problem with the Jewish public; he lost a big number of the Jewish public because of things like that. The argument that you can rebut is that Obama never had that connection to the Israeli people enough, not like Clinton, and that allowed Bibi to use that against the United States in arguments like Iran.

I think in American politics there was a segment of voters within the community who were suspicious of Obama simply because he was African American, simply because of his name, and we had to overcome that. But we did overcome it. He got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 — overwhelming. And by the way, he got an overwhelming, though less, majority of Jewish voters in 2012, I think much to the consternation of those who somehow thought they could separate him from the community in a really significant way.

And when he did go to Israel later and he spoke in the Knesset, I think everyone would agree that was a powerful, powerful visit, and he made a really good and solid connection with the Israeli people —

Should that have been done more? Was there a little bit too little reaching out directly to the Israeli public?

As I said, if I could rerun the tape, I would have gone there in the first instance. I don’t know how much it would have changed the dynamic. I think Bibi, one of his projects has been to try and intrude on American politics and influence the attitude of American Jews toward Obama. There is no doubt in my mind that he and Dermer had placed their bet on the Republicans winning in 2012, and were disappointed when that didn’t happen. …

The 2012 election, you’re watching Bibi sort of come and do everything but throw his arms around Romney. How astounding was that to you?

Not very. I thought it was a bad bet. I was always confident that we were going to win the election, and I thought it was a bad bet on his part and that he had been misled. I think Dermer badly miscalculated, maybe because of his own ideological bent as a practicing and active Republican. They misread the political environment here. But I wasn’t surprised, because you could see the augur; you could see the prelude to that leading into the election.

Bibi’s lecturing of the president in the Oval Office, that was an aggressive act. I viewed it as a hostile act. But I think that he was playing to his base back home, and he was playing to a segment within the community here. …

The lead-up to that is people will talk about the fact that Bibi was quite angry due to the fact that the State Department speech had just taken place on May 19, where the president talked about the Arab Spring and … the need for peace talks, and then this famous line that the peace talks should start basically with the borders of Israel and Palestine based on the 1967 lines.

And land swaps.

And land swaps.

Every understanding of any viable two-state solution includes the ’67 borders plus land swaps. No one, certainly no one on our side, would advocate a return to the ’67 borders. The thing that was insidious about what Bibi did was he portrayed the president’s remarks as advocating a return to the ’67 borders, and I don’t think that was well received, because it was dishonest.

What is your take on this whole controversy of him then believing that this was a case where Obama was leaving behind what had been promised by a previous administration, leading up to the anger that I suppose they say led to this meeting in the White House?

That is a level of depth that I just can’t speak to. But I know this: I know that Netanyahu, as astute as he is, knew when he was flying over here and made his remarks that the president had not advocated a return to the ’67 borders, and yet that’s how he depicted it, and that was intentional. That was done for political effect. I don’t think he came with the intention of finding understanding or a meeting of the minds. I think he came with a mind toward enflaming the relationship.

In 2009, the Qom facility [in Iran] is discovered. The president decides to use it to pressure Iran. Take me just into a little bit of that. What are we understanding about the Iranian nuclear program? How was it decided that there was an opportunity here? …

This is somewhat forgotten in the discussions about Iran, but every single bilateral meeting that I sat in on during the time that I was in the White House, the president made a really passionate case for economic sanctions against Iran. He did it with the Russians, he did it with the Chinese, and he did it with everyone else. The discovery of this elaborate covert operation added impetus and momentum to that effort, but he was single-minded in pursuing these sanctions. His belief was … that unless we could get comprehensive global sanctions, including the Chinese and the Russians, that Iran would continue to do what it was doing, would never come to the table, and the discovery of this site really added a sense of urgency to that effort.

And an opportunity to bring them to the table?

No question. No question. I think that the discovery of that site helped both the movement for sanctions and built pressure on Iran to come to the table. It was hard to depict the program as innocent in light of what we had discovered.

So the president basically is betting his foreign affairs legacy on this issue. How important are these negotiations? And also, how do you view the relationship with Israel and the United States because of this feud that Netanyahu seems to be very willing to continue?

Even given all of the back-and-forth between the president and Netanyahu, it’s very clear to me the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is going to endure. Americans strongly support it. There is a great impetus for that. Even during this period, the amount of aid, the level of cooperation military to military has been greater than ever. So I think the relationship will endure.

And Iran, the both sides of it, how important is it to the president, his legacy?

Those who depict this as his legacy hunting miss the point. His view was that Iran was steaming toward breakout capacity to build an atomic weapon and that the array of options to stop them were limited, and that there was going to be more and more of an impetus for military action that has dramatic ramifications for the region, for us. While you can’t rule that out, his view was you have to try and take the other route first and exhaust that path before you essentially get drawn into military action, because as we were reminded all the time, military action to try and stop their nuclear program only has the capacity to retard it for a year or two, but you can’t permanently disable it.

In addition to the really dramatic ramifications of a conflict with Iran in which America would necessarily be involved, you also have an unsatisfying result, because they would have even greater reason to pursue the program, pursue it quickly, and you would be right back at it again in a couple of years.

Is it surprising about Bibi’s doubling down?

Bibi has been on this issue for two decades. In the early ’90s he warned that Iran would have a bomb within three to five years. He periodically has been issuing warnings about how close Iran was to a bomb for two decades. So this is not new territory for him. This has been a fundamental theme for him. When you see hostile leadership in Iran constantly pledging to wipe Israel off the map, there is reason to be concerned. I thoroughly understand. The president understands it. The question is what is the most effective way to stop them from obtaining that weapon. And nobody has really, as he said, nobody posed a really compelling alternative. The idea that these sanctions, which we fought so hard to put in place, were going to be maintained in perpetuity is a fantasy. That’s not true, and Bibi knows that’s not true.

I think Bibi knows what the alternative is. The alternative is eventually if these talks fail you’re going to be faced with this inexorable drive toward a military strike that will only retard the program for a couple of years, but wouldn’t give us transparency, wouldn’t give us inspections, would give us no leverage.

But if he knows that, why does he keep fighting?

I think there are two things. One is I think that he has been monomaniacal about this for decades. The second is I think it’s good for his politics. I don’t want to completely discount the fact that because he has been on this issue for 20 years and predicting that Iran would have a bomb around the corner for 20 years that, I think that that is sort of fundamental to his politics or to his belief structure. But the second thing is there is no doubt that he’s not a — we saw in the election that he’s not a hugely popular figure or hasn’t been, and he is rallying the country around this issue.

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